Fiction Reviews


(2008) Liz Williams,Tor, £6.99, pbk, 358 pp, ISBN 978-0-330-44207-7

Winterstrike is a city on Mars, far in the future, so long after terraforming and settlement that the emigration from Earth has been forgotten, remembered again after a period of devastating wars, and that too lies far in the past. Yet even now, the human settlement is confined to a small part of the planet: page 321 refers to 'the outlying districts of Mars… the dry basins of Mars, the empty plains. Did I really want them filled with the children of Earth? But we were all children of Earth, once upon a time.'

There has been extensive genetic engineering on Mars and male humans survive only in a drastically modified form of humanity, the Vulpen. This is a future in which paranormal technology has long since been mastered – every house has its protective ghosts, parts of the soul can be ‘stolen’ to compel obedience, and Earth-Mars transfers are made paranormally through ‘haunt-space’, rather like the Guild Navigators' in Dune. But there are some very powerful mechanical arts as well: the Centipede Queen of Malay, who plans to reassert her family’s ancient dominance of Mars, is not human at all as we understand it.

I found the settings difficult to visualise, not least because the cover shows a very different city in the shape of a disc surmounting a tall pillar, like the Khesh City of Jaine Fenn’s Principles of Angels. Winterstrike takes its name from a meteorite impact right at its centre, which seems to have been relatively minor: the crater is overlooked by a Temple building right on its rim which is still usable. But there is a Fortress in the centre of the crater, so it must be younger than the impact, yet the whole architectural style of that part of the city is defensive and the Temple itself is fortress-like, so on first reading I was often confused as to location. When we are on Earth, in a monochrome landscape, a character longs for the colours of Mars, but we are not told what they are on a surface long since made Earthlike; and she is on Earth for a long time before she notices that the gravity is different (page 320). Global flooding on Earth has reduced the Himalayas to a chain of islands, yet Malaysia is still extant.

We are told that Winterstrike and the rival city of Caud are 'built on water', and that is possible now Mars Express has told us that hydrated clays are found in surprisingly localised deposits below the Martian surface. But they’re linked by canals which penetrate deep into the cities, so why is the crater's floor dry? On page 71, "Now, in winter, the shipyards were quieter, with many of the cargo vessels ice-locked in the southerly ports of the Plains, waiting for spring." Olympus Mons is in sight from much of the territory, and has kept its Earth-given name, so it would have been helpful to know which plains: on page 93, "At this time of year, really warm weather would only be found much further south, towards the lakes". Which lakes? On the map of Mars the only candidate region I can see is Noctis Labyrinthis, which puts the cities on the Tharsis plain, though they have to be west of the Tharsis Ridge to have an unobstructed view of Olympus Mons. The mountainous region inhabited by Vulpen and other altered humans is called the Noumenon, north of Winterstrike, and would be the Ridge and the foothills of Ascraeus Mons if it’s actually northeast. But if it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, why are the southerly ports ice-bound while the docks of Winterstrike and Caud and their linking canals remain free?

Relationships between the characters are equally hard to follow. Essegui Harn and her sister Leretui (Shorn) are the product of two mothers, both of whom Essegui confusingly refers to as 'my mother' (pages 253 and 263, 268, 316, for example). Their cousin Hestia has a different mother who’s a sister to both of them, but it’s Leretui who is the real odd one out, because she is carrying latent Vulpen DNA at the behest of Gennera, Hestia's spymistress, who has a hold over the whole family.

Confused? I had to do a lot of backtracking to work it out. But while I was sometimes irritated by what seems unnecessary lack of clarity, this is a novel of human values, however altered. Elsewhere here I have reviewed Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher, in which the characters are nearly emotionless:the most sympathetic one is a combat droid. I know which kind of writing I prefer.

Duncan Lunan

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